Can the Palestinians afford the UN recognition they seek? That is the question their leadership must ask itself as it presses for a vote next month on its application to upgrade its status from observer to non-member state.

The issue is being couched by Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas in terms of prestige and improved bargaining position for possible peace talks with Israel, but that conflicts with reality.

The Palestinians already have diplomatic recognition by some 120 countries and that has put them no closer to statehood.

Going for UN recognition will certainly put statehood even farther off.

By returning to the United Nations in search of unilateral recognition, Abbas is walking away from the peace table. He refuses to talk directly with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu until Netanyahu accepts his demand for a total settlement freeze, something Abbas fully understands is totally unacceptable to this Israeli government.

He also says he doesn’t trust Netanyahu. Ok, if you don’t trust him, test him. If Netanyahu says he’s ready for talks with no preconditions, call him on it. You can only win.

Unless you don’t want to.

Abbas went for Security Council recognition of Palestinian statehood last year and was blocked by the United States. Now he plans to go directly to the 193-member General Assembly where all he needs is a simple majority and the US has no veto. The GA can’t bestow full recognition but it can elevate the PLO to non-member state.

That will allow the Palestinians to join assorted UN agencies, particularly the International Criminal Court (ICC), where Abbas earlier tried to pursue charges against Israel but was turned down because the PA didn’t have standing.

The Palestinians complain that the Obama administration is exerting “tremendous pressure” on America’s allies and on them to drop the bid. A US memo being circulated reportedly warns the move would be “extremely counterproductive” and could lead to “significant negative consequences for the PA, including financial sanctions.”

The United States considers the Palestinian move provocative and a distraction from the pursuit of peace as well as a violation of understandings Palestinians signed to negotiate differences and avoid unilateral moves – understandings Israel hasn’t exactly lived up to, either.

There are no signs the Palestinian leadership is prepared to deal with the consequences of its action.

Abbas’ low standing in Washington was not helped when in his UN speech last month he accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and war crimes, denied Jewish connections to Jerusalem and the “alleged” Temple and called the city Palestine’s “eternal capital.”

That doesn’t sound like a man seeking peace.

If Abbas goes through his plan he faces restrictions on US aid, even the possible loss of hundreds of millions of dollars that his government, facing a precarious economic situation, can ill afford. He can also expect the US Congress to demand even harsher measures, including closing the PLO’s Washington office.

The Europeans and friendly Arab states, facing American pressure, are urging the Palestinians to be careful they don’t do more harm than good to their cause. They would be hard pressed to make up the difference in lost US aid.

Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said, “If the Palestinians try to use the unilateral path and go to the UN... we will consider it a violation of their most fundamental commitment,” and Israel “reserves the right to respond.”

Israel could decide to delay transfer of payments owed the PA, tighten restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank and impose financial and other limitations.

Some European governments have criticized the Palestinians for failing to engage in “serious, high level diplomacy,” but at the same time they are wary of appearing to endorse Israeli settlement policy, which Abbas blames for his refusal to resume peace talks.

Abbas reportedly told EU diplomats that once the UN grants the recognition he seeks, he will be ready to return to the negotiating table, but he said nothing about whether he will drop his preconditions which have enabled Netanyahu to stay away.

Abbas knows that UN recognition will be a major setback to his chances for a negotiated two-state agreement with Israel, which fears he will use the new status to wage a legal and diplomatic war against the Jewish state.

PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said the UN bid, which calls for recognition of the state of Palestine along the 1967 borders including east Jerusalem, is the only way to stop expansion of Jewish settlements, but in reality it could have the opposite effect.

Palestinians will be handing Netanyahu the excuses he needs going into January’s election to shore up his right wing base by stepping up settlement construction and putting off any peace talks.

The Palestinians insist they are seeking United Nations membership in order to advance the peace process, and Israelis say it will do just the opposite. The US agrees with the Israelis, but it also knows the whole exercise is meaningless because neither side has shown any real interest in returning to the peace table anytime soon. Instead of statehood, Abba’s strategy threatens to cause great damage to his government’s already precarious financial situation

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